Many Floridians, both native and transplant, are big fans of our sandhill cranes. We see them in backyards, along roadsides, and in open fields. They’re hard to miss, since they stand more than 4 feet tall, have bright red patches on their heads, and aren’t really scared of silly little things like 3-ton vehicles barreling straight at them at 60 miles an hour. Also, the babies (called colts) are just the cutest li’l things.
But in other parts of the country, sandhill cranes are game birds. Here, they have a reputation as neighborhood pets. There, they have a reputation as one of the tastiest wild meats — the so-called “ribeye of the sky.” It’s a pretty significant disconnect.
It’s not a huge surprise that someone made a request at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Dec. 11-12 meeting for the state to consider a sandhill hunt. After all, Alabama just declared an open season for sandhill cranes in that state a few months ago. Some folks are probably thinking it’s time Florida did the same.
It’s also not a surprise that Facebook was quickly inundated with posts linking to a change.org petition asking the state to deny said request. The petition got 11,000 signatures in a couple days, and drew a statement from the FWC that there was no plan to OK a hunting season.
But even if no one had signed it, there was never really a chance of a Florida sandhill hunt. It’s not that the FWC is anti-hunting. It’s that our birds are different.
The Florida peninsula is home to a genetically distinct resident population of these birds which lives here and only here. They even have their own subspecies: Grus canadensis pratensis. There are about 5,000 of them all together, and they are protected by law as a state-designated threatened species.
For a hunt to be legal, they’d have to come off the threatened list. That’s not going to happen. Adding only a few hundred more shot in addition to the hundreds that get hit by vehicles would put them in danger of going extinct — which is exactly what the law is in place to prevent.
But how is it that hunters in other states get a shot? Well, head north and there are a lot more resident cranes. Three other subspecies — the lesser, greater and Canadian sandhill cranes — have a population of about a half-million from Maine to Wisconsin and then north into the wilds of Canada and Alaska. There are more birds in the Rockies and on the northwest coast.
With such a large number of birds and plenty of habitat for them, there’s a lot less concern about hunting doing real damage to their numbers. And since most of the birds live in wild or very rural agricultural areas rather than foraging on the manicured lawns of gated communities, there’s a lot less emotional attachment to them.
In winter, about 20,000 to 30,000 migratory sandhills come to Florida from the Midwest and Rust Belt states. There are enough of them that they could be managed for hunting. But in the field, it’s impossible to tell a resident Florida sandhill from a snowbird Canadian sandhill at shooting distance. Heck, it can be a challenge even when the thing is standing 20 feet away from you and giving you the hairy eyeball.
That’s why there is not now, will not be, and cannot be a sandhill season in Florida, no matter how much some people might think an open season on snowbirds is a good idea. Having grown up with these birds — which are equal parts amusing, intimidating (it’s not afraid of you, and just look at the spear on its face!), magnificent and endearing — I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.